Mother of Exiles

Manny and I went on a Circle Line cruise around lower Manhattan yesterday to celebrate his birthday.  We had a tour guide named David.  We weren’t expecting much, just your typical touristy stuff, i.e. “And on your right is the Empire State Building” etc.  But no, David turned out to be insightful and knowledgeable, pointing out things even Manny didn’t know about NYC.  We were impressed.  As we cruised past the industrial Brooklyn waterfront, David repeated himself over and over: “this building used be _____ [fill in the blank with any warehouse or factory name] and now is being converted in luxury condos.”  He talked about the loss of low and middle-income housing in the city.  The loss of working class jobs.  The city used to rely on industry – factories, warehouses, importing/exporting seaports, now the biggest source of revenue is Wall Street and tourism. 

We cruised around the Statue of Liberty.  I had never seen the Statue up close before, it was really beautiful.  David gave us the basic history of the statue, but then also gave an eloquent little speech about how the waves of immigrants shaped the city, the the rest of the country, into what it is today.  And how ironic it is that today even the most outspoken anti-immigrant critics are the children of immigrants who passed through this city.  Immigrants who came through Ellis Island had answer a few questions and pass a physical exam to get into the U.S.  2% of immigrants who came to Ellis Island were not allowed into the country and were forced to return to their home countries.  25% of immigrants who entered at Ellis Island stayed in the city.  The other 75% went to New Jersey to board trains that took them elsewhere.  Trains at this terminal left every 4 minutes, all day.  In the searchable database at the Ellis Island museum under the last name Gilfeather, there is someone named Thomas J. who came from County Sligo, Ireland which is near the border of Northern Ireland.  He is my great grandfather.  He was one of the 25% of immigrants who stayed in the city, and our family hasn’t left New York since then.

David read aloud the poem by Emma Lazarus that is engraved in the Statue as we cruised past Ellis Island.  It was a really poignant moment – the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, the skyline all surrounded in orange light as the sun set, and listening to the words of the poem.  I felt foolish because I had never heard entire thing, only the last four lines.  Here’s the entire poem, sort of in honor of Mother’s Day:

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Emma Lazarus, 1883

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